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Just Call Me James McManus

24 March 2006

By Aaron Todd

Perhaps it was fate that I packed Positively Fifth Street in my travel bag as I got ready for my first trip as a poker journalist. In the book, James McManus chronicles his trip to cover the 2000 World Series of Poker. It was on my list of books to review, and since taking this job, at least a half-dozen friends told me I HAD to read it.

An amateur poker player, McManus experiences the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas, using his advance from Harper's to win a satellite into the Main Event of the WSOP en route to a fifth place finish in poker's most prestigious tournament of the year. But he also writes about the dark underbelly of the city, detailing the murder of Ted Binion and subsequent trial of his stripper girlfriend and her new boyfriend.

Okay, so I didn't risk my advance (I didn't have one … PokerRoom.com was generous enough to foot the bill for the trip), nor was I covering a juicy homicide. But I was covering a poker tournament for the first time, and the lure of the tables drew me in. And while McManus reported on one of the most notorious crimes in Las Vegas history, I managed to find a pillar of morality on a cruise ship in the Bahamas.

The tournament I was covering consisted of 10 aspiring professional players (including a couple who were already making a modest living playing poker) competing for PokerRoom.com's inaugural "Become a Poker Pro" tournament title. The winner would earn a $250,000 prize package, including $60,000 in cash plus tournament entry fees and travel costs associated with 12 major tournaments.

I have to admit I was a little jealous of these guys. One the biggest freeroll prizes of all time was on the line, and there was no way for me to enter. But I was surrounded by poker players … it was only a matter of time before a game broke out.

The night before the tournament, PokerRoom.com sponsored a free 30-person tournament consisting of the players, their guests and the media in attendance for the weekend. The winner would receive a PokerRoom.com chip set that retails for more than $400 on their Web site.

Yeah, a chip set is nice (especially this chip set … 10 gram ceramic CHIPCO chips with bold colors and a nifty PokerRoom.com design), but I will readily admit that I don't play that well when there's no money on the line. So when Chris Birchby (a player known as MarvinGarden on PokerRoom.com) announced that he'd be collecting $50 from people who were interested in playing a "Last-Longer" (the player who buys in and lasts longest wins the money, while non-paying players are not eligible for the cash prize) before the tournament began, I won the "get the money out of your wallet" race.

While a buy-in that large is a little steep for my normal game, is there a better way to measure your skills than against aspiring pros? Playing against established professionals is suicidal, and besides, if a tournament with a $50 buy-in is a little expensive for my taste, imagine how Phil Hellmuth would react if I showed up at his table with three twenties in my pocket.

So I figured I'd toss in a donation to the field, see if I could scrape my way to the final table, and chalk it up as a good story to tell my buddies in my home game.

Only 14 of the 30 players in the tournament bought in to the Last-Longer. Those who did agreed to play winner take all, at least until the last couple players decided to make a deal. Most of those not buying in were actually PokerRoom.com executives. This was probably a good policy, as it would look bad no matter what happened.

When we got down to two tables, only two or three of the cash players had been eliminated. Not too surprising, since those who were confident enough to play for money were the more accomplished players. I'd managed to build a decent stack thanks to some fortuitous cards, but was a little nervous when Jack Arnold (a.k.a. Dragon2) sat down at the table.

Jack is a professional player from Tulsa, Okla. He has four computer monitors set up in his office so he can simultaneously view multiple tables. He says he can play up to eight at a time, but doesn't like to go much over four because his concentration begins to suffer.

Jack is intimidating, and not just because he makes a living playing poker. The second oldest player in the field, he was certainly the most experienced. He made an appearance on ESPN during the 2004 World Series of Poker, busting out on a bad beat when he was a 9-1 favorite with one card to come. Plus, the man planned on bringing his father to accompany him on this cruise through the Bahamas, but left him in Tunica, Miss., because "somewhere along the way he forgot that he was a guest."

I'd done my best to avoid any confrontations with Jack, but I decided to defend a horrible little 5-6 unsuited in the big blind when he came in for a small raise. The flop came 5-3-3, and after I checked, Jack went all in. I put him on two high cards and called. I was right (he held K-J), and thankfully I had him covered, taking out the guy I least wanted to face at the table.

Not too long after that, we were down to the final table. All the remaining players, except for two PokerRoom.com executives, had paid to enter the Last-Longer so I still considered myself to be a pretty long shot to win.

Those odds changed when my pocket fives stood up against an A-7 all in from one of the better players at the table (he actually hit a seven on the river, but that gave me a nine high straight). After the hand I had a substantial chip lead, so I shifted gears and stayed patient. When Brandon Lowiec, one of the player's guests, and I were the only ones left in the hunt for the money, our chip counts were virtually identical so we decided to split the cash 50-50.

With the money already distributed, the game got loose quickly. I ended up winning the whole shebang to lay claim to the chip set, thanks in large part to hitting a runner-runner straight to knock out PokerRoom.com's Thomas Falkenstrom, who understandably wouldn't let it go for the rest of the weekend. That made Ted Nelson, a PokerRoom.com VIP guest, the last man standing among our hosts, which I think is what upset Thomas the most. Apparently Thomas doesn't know that he's supposed to let VIP guests win.

I'll spare you the details of my heads up match with Brandon, but I will say that I gained a great deal of respect for him soon after the tournament ended. When we decided to chop the winnings, I counted the money and handed him a pile. Apparently I didn't count it right, because when I got back to my room following the tournament, I noticed that my share was $100 short. The next night I asked Brandon if he ended up with the extra money, and after he checked his safe he verified that I hadn't counted the money correctly and handed the extra dough over to me.

While McManus and I were both on a cool trip to write about poker, and we both had some success in a tournament, the similarities pretty much end there. My tournament win netted me a $300 profit … nothing to turn your nose at, but certainly not the life changing amount that McManus won. And while McManus may have had a better story to unearth in the Ted Binion murder trial, it is unlikely he ran into anyone as honorable as Brandon.

In his previous life, Aaron Todd was a sports journalist by day and a poker player by night. He can now be found covering the poker beat for Casino City and making horrendously unsuccessful bluffs in his home game. Write to Aaron at aarontodd@casinocity.com.

Just Call Me James McManus is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.
Aaron Todd

Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd has covered the gambling industry since 2006. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and (his personal favorite) Badeuci.

Since graduating from St. Lawrence University, Aaron has worked as a journalist covering the gambling industry and as a communications specialist in college athletic departments.

A native of a small town in New York just south of Ottawa, Aaron lives in Needham, Mass., with his wife and three children. Write to Aaron at aarontodd@casinocity.com, and follow him on Twitter @CasinoCity_AT.